Indo-US relations have hit a rough patch following the arrest of Indian woman diplomat Devyani Khobragade in New York last Thursday. The mid-ranking diplomat, currently posted as Deputy Consul General for Political, Economic, Commercial and Women’s Affairs, has been accused of visa fraud, strip-searched and humiliated upon her arrest. She was later released on bail.
As per reports, the US authorities have accused her of helping her Indian domestic help in submitting fake documents to the US State Department, claiming that she was paying her $4,500 per month, when in reality, the nanny help got only $573 a month. Khobragade had hired the help in 2012 and she was working as a babysitter and domestic help at her house in the upscale Manhattan area of New York till last June.
According to The New York Times, the diplomat is accused of telling the woman to lie on her visa application to get to the US and say that she was going to be paid the higher amount. Then, Khobragade allegedly had the woman sign a second, under-the-radar contract that noted the nanny’s monthly salary including overtime -- the much smaller amount.
The domestic help and her husband, who were not named, are serving as witnesses in the case.
It is significant to note that the US laws are extremely tough on human exploitation and human trafficking. Thus, for the US, Khobragade has committed a very serious crime. Preet Bharara, the Manhattan US Attorney of Indian origin, who has ordered the arrest of Khobragade, has also termed the charges as very serious. He told the media: “This type of fraud on the USA and exploitation of an individual will not be tolerated.”
The case has, however, rattled India. While the Indian Government maintains that Khobragade must enjoy diplomatic immunity, the US authorities stress that their Diplomatic Security procedures follow independent rules and that Khobragade will be given no such protection. The Indian authorities are also miffed with the degrading treatment meted out to Khobragade.
The difference between the Indian and the US reactions can be decoded through the media reports and the underlining biases contained in them. The Indian media has been extremely critical of the US and has expressed outrage since the day the news was reported. Here’s what some mainstream media reports said:
The Hindu opined that the “dramatic manner of the arrest, which included handcuffing, is unusual treatment for any person, even if one were to disregard her consular status. Also, there is nothing to suggest she was about to flee the country”.
The Times of India said the treatment of Khobragade “is in clear violation of the courtesies extended to a consular official. It also flouts Article 41 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, according to which consular officials are not liable to arrest except in cases of grave crime”. It accused the US of double-standards, wondering if the same procedure would have followed in case of arrest of a Chinese or British diplomat. While it sought an appropriate action from New Delhi, it also warned the Indian authorities from going overboard against resorting to steps that could “escalate into an all-out political row”.
The Indian Express opined that Indian reaction spoke poorly in light of the Italian marines’ case, where even the marines were said to enjoy immunity. “Contrast that with the absolute abandonment of sobriety, reason and responsibility in reacting to charges against Khobragade of visa fraud. To allow American pursuit of the rule of law on their territory to spiral into a diplomatic standoff speaks very poorly of India’s foreign service and the politicians and officials in Delhi happy to play into notions of outraged national honour.”
The Hindustan Times said “India and the United States have returned to petty squabbling in a manner reminiscent of the Cold War”. The incident “is hardly the stuff of strategic relationships and geopolitics”. It focused on the economic aspect of the issues, saying “Indian diplomacy can now expect to face at least one or two such cases every year. They are likely to increase. India is right to be angry about the high-handed treatment of Ms Khobragade, however it must also recognise that the charges against her may well be true. And it must also accept that if the maid was underpaid it was because of the absurd discrepancy that exists between the wage scales of India and the West.”
On the other hand, the US media has alleged India is responding to the incident with “revenge” on mind, and not seeing the issue with clarity. The tough measures that the Indian Government resorted to following the incident, including removal of security barriers in front of the US Embassy in New Delhi, have been described in the mainstream American media as “retaliatory measures”.
“The clash between the two supposed allies escalated rapidly on the heels of last week’s arrest of Devyani Khobragade, India’s deputy consul general in New York. She was accused of submitting false documents to obtain a work visa for her Manhattan housekeeper,” Fox News reported.
“India retaliated for the arrest of one of its diplomats in New York by dismantling security barriers on streets around the US Embassy in New Delhi and revoking some privileges given to American consular officials,” The Wall Street Journal said.
“The way an Indian diplomat was treated by law enforcement officials in New York last week has touched off a furore in India, where politicians from across the political spectrum expressed outrage and the New Delhi police retaliated by removing security barriers that were meant to protect the American Embassy,” The New York Times reported.
“Authorities in India removed security barriers in front of the US Embassy in New Delhi on Tuesday in an act of revenge after the arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York last week,” The Hill reported.
The nydailynews.com identified Khobragade as advocate of women’s rights and gender issues, but one who paid her help “peanuts” despite “raking in more than $100,000 a year”.
The nypost.com, on the other hand, accused her of mistreating her nanny and said she was “busted” for lying to the authorities.
The LA Times accused the Indian media of being “breathless” in reporting this story saying, The issue has become a major story, with India’s often-breathless media calling the situation a “full blown diplomatic war,” while National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon was quoted describing the US action as “barbaric” and “despicable.”
No matter what turn the issue takes, it is evident from the reportage in both the Indian and the US media that each has taken a different stance, instead of looking at the larger picture. The American media’s follow-up in the case is in bad taste for it overlooks the concerns of diplomats and is laced with biasness generally reserved for Indians. It may be a small event, but it only bows to the public opinion of prejudice.